To help the territory stay abreast of changing international standards, the House of Assembly passed a trio of bills last week aimed at countering money laundering, terrorism and proliferation financing.
The bills — which now await Governor John Rankin’s assent — give Virgin Islands authorities more power to investigate such crimes, allow for harsher prosecution, and create a new council to help oversee the financial services sector.
The House of Assembly passed the Criminal Justice (International Cooperation) (Amendment) Act, 2021; the Counter-Terrorism Act, 2021; and the Financial Investigation Agency (Amendment) Act, 2021 on June 24. All were first Gazetted March 12.
The first of the bills the House debated last Thursday would formalise the creation of the Council of Competent Authorities. This body would ensure the VI’s compliance with international law on anti-money laundering and help regulate the financial services sector and tax administration.
Cabinet initially approved establishing the council in 2017.
Attorney General Dawn Smith, who brought all three bills for final readings last week, said giving the body statutory recognition will help it carry out its mandates.
“This allows for all the territory’s competent authorities, which are the Governor’s Office, the Attorney General’s Chambers, the Financial Investigation Agency, the International Tax Authority, and the Financial Services Commission, to work much more closely together,” she said.
Transportation, Works and Utilities Minister Kye Rymer seconded the bill, and Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley said it “goes to show that though the BVI is a relatively small country, its international presence is quite weighty.”
Health and Social Development Minister Carvin Malone added, “The reality of the day is that the territory’s good name is under attack.”
This and other bills related to white-collar crime, he said, are important for maintaining the territory’s good standing in the financial sector, especially amid heavy scrutiny brought on by the Commission of Inquiry.
After considering the bill in closed-door committee, members passed it without amendments.
The Counter-Terrorism Act, 2021 focuses on the “detection, prevention, prosecution, and conviction of terrorist activities” within the territory.
The 144-page bill specifies the offences and penalties associated with terrorist acts in the VI, levying up to lifelong imprisonment for any involvement in detonating devices that cause death, serious bodily injury, or extensive destruction, particularly if major economic loss results. This includes nuclear and biological weapons.
The bill also criminalises financing terrorism.
Ms. Smith added that “extensive provisions” address other offences, including recruitment, harbouring terrorists, and providing property to facilitate terrorist acts. “This bill is indeed an extensive one, and it marks the territory’s development as a jurisdiction called upon to conform to international standards, much the same as many jurisdictions across the globe,” she said.
Deputy Speaker Neville Smith encouraged members of the public to read the bill and understand their responsibility to report any suspicious activity.
Sharing her personal experience with the first attempted terrorist attack on the World Trade Center while her sister was in the building, Junior Minister for Trade and Economic Development Shereen Flax-Charles lent her support and said the bill should help detect and prevent attacks.
Mr. Malone said the included proliferation regulations should also help reduce the risk of the territory playing any role in the funding of terrorism.
He added that the bill is a critical step in preparing for the territory’s Caribbean Financial Action Task Force evaluation next year.
Mr. Rymer again seconded, and the House passed the bill with amendments.
The final bill redefines the Financial Investigation Agency’s role when it comes to investigating money laundering, terrorism and proliferation financing, giving the FIA more liberty to seek documents, examine people under oath, and take enforcement action. The legislation will also aid with preparing for the upcoming mutual evaluation, Ms. Smith said.
After seconding the bill, Mr. Rymer pointed out that defining “designated non-financial businesses and professions” will provide greater clarity for prosecuting financial offences across the board.
Opposition Leader Marlon Penn added that the FIA “plays a very important role in the global financial network, especially in the industry that we depend so heavily on in terms of economic viability.”
“The FIA is what I call the firewall between our financial system and those who wish to do illicit activity through our financial system,” Mr. Penn said. “One of the things that is important coming out of this exercise is that there needs to be a level of public consultation to at least allow persons to understand what, if any, is the impact coming to them out of this legislation.”
He said it will be especially important to communicate with non-profit organisations and businesses in the territory so they can comply with the new regulations.
“The attacks are coming from several angles,” he said. “We have to ensure that we are guarded, our firewall is updated, and our people are well trained to be able to meet the needs of this industry, and by extension the needs of our people and our economy,” he said.
Premier Andrew Fahie said enacting measures to better protect the financial sector is especially important now considering overseas territories have seen significant funding cuts since the onset of the pandemic.
Last November, Baroness Liz Sugg, former minister for overseas territories and sustainable development at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, resigned after the UK cut foreign aid by a projected $4 billion in response to economic hardship caused by pandemic shutdowns.
“Even the United Nations have recognised the BVI on how we have handled Covid-19,” Mr. Fahie said.
The bill passed without amendments.
The House planned to start its 10th sitting on July 1 but postponed until further notice.